To Build or not to Build

To Build or not to Build

3rd November 2011

This is a guest post by Richard Shove, who is SEO Specialist at OMD UK. Richard has a strong opinion on the industry and wanted to share his view on whether or not we should all be learning code to become a good SEO.

Before I get started, I apologise in advance as this post may initially come across a little negative. It’s not intended to offend or criticize, I’m Scottish and it’s in my nature to be sarcastic and angry. Bear with me though, there is a meaning to the rant.

Do As I do

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There seems to be a current trend within SEO (recently highlighted by almost every conference presentation mentioning it), that we should all be learning to code and building our own tools. I’ve even seen some saying that it was their main takeaway of recent events. I’m sorry, but if I’d paid £600+ and my highlight was being told that tools are helpful and I should build my own, I’d be incredibly disappointed.


My first objection is that everyone knows tools are useful. If they weren’t, companies like Raven and SEOmoz wouldn’t have stopped consulting and concentrated their efforts solely on creating and improving them. Enterprise tools such as Bright Edge, Search Metrics and the likes wouldn’t be able to charge what they do if there weren’t a need for them.

Of course, there are always slight tweaks or modifications that we require to make life that little bit easier but ultimately, not everyone is cut out for programming. It’s the whole left/right brain thing in action. Ideally an SEO would be good at using both as there are some technical aspects and some creative aspects but generally people will be better at one or the other. Stick to what you’re good at.

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It all adheres to the age old adage that SEOs should be able to code. I’m not sure where that originally came from but it’s absolute Balearics in my honest opinion. I personally prefer the technical aspects of SEO and can happily deconstruct a large scale site, identify issues with it and provide technical recommendations and do so at an enterprise level on a daily basis. There’s a fundamental difference between understanding code and being able to code. Could I build a site/tool from scratch? Probably, but it would take me a lot longer than someone else who can code.

Which leads me on to the next point; spending weeks, nay months, on building a tool that saves you a few minutes on a task is not a constructive use of your time, or your employer’s time. If you have in-house development teams, get them to do it. If not, outsource, it’ll be far more cost effective in the long run.

Just Do It

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If you want to learn to code, do it, but do it as a hobby, not because you think you’re a bad SEO if you don’t. It’s something I’ve wanted to do from an early age, sat playing with my Atari ST, wishing I could just make my own games. I’ve always been a geek and at school and university attempted to code. I somehow managed to pass an entire year of Java at uni, yet still didn’t quite get it enough (though this was probably through not actually applying myself to learning). I have since tried again and am probably better now but there’s a long way to go.

Finding time to learn is always the hard part, if it’s a genuine hobby and interest, why not ask your employer if you can do it as part of your development plan? If they’re not willing to, then it’s an option that’s encouraged over at OMD 😉 Failing that, take inspiration from others around you. I’d highly recommend reading Tom Critchlow’s blog post on how he built 7books. Set yourself a task, come up with an idea for a site/tool and Just Do It.

The Blue or Red Pill?

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To reiterate a previous point, don’t feel that you’re a failure if you have no interest in coding or just can’t get to grips with it. As I’ve already said, it’s not for everyone. I’d certainly suggest that you should learn the technical basics but even then there is always going to be a need for creative SEOs as our industry matures.

Still to this day, the blog post that has influenced my career more than any is a tale of how we can’t all be an SEO Rockstar by Rishi Lakhani. At the very time it was originally posted, I seriously doubted whether or not I was cut out for SEO in the long term. I don’t have a particularly creative brain and have never really enjoyed the link building side to SEO. I love the geeky stuff, analysing data and problem solving and that’s what I’ve concentrated my efforts on to ensure that I have the edge in some areas.

For the technical minded, then coding is definitely one avenue you can take to improve yourself. Being able to not only make recommendations but provide a full list of instructions, code and all for a client’s development team is invaluable. It’s not the only option for you though. Get stuck in to testing, data capture and analysis. Take a vertical, such as Video search and become an expert in it. Really knuckle down and learn it inside out.

If you’re more creatively minded, then you need to think more like a traditional marketer. Improve your knowledge of other areas of the mix; PR and Social are obvious avenues and are perfectly aligned with link building. Think about integration with offline channels and take things to a campaign based level, rather than solely from an SEO viewpoint. A lot of SEOs can get a bit short-sighted to the bigger picture.

Whichever pill you decide to swallow, just remember, it’s your career; don’t do something because someone thinks it will be good for you. Stick to what you’re good at but make sure you step out of your comfort zone from time to time, don’t get too comfy.

TLDR version:

• I like to rant
• Conference speakers, stop telling us to code
• Coding isn’t for everyone
• If you need a tool, outsource
• Learn to code if it interests you
• Find your niche within SEO and concentrate on it
• If you prefer the creative side, think more broadly in terms of marketing
• If you prefer the technical side, coding is a good way of improving your skills

About Richard Shove

Richard Shove has been working in SEO for over 6 years, getting in to the industry after graduating in 2005. Richard loves getting stuck in to data and his favorite areas of SEO are keyword research, technical audits and analytics. Richard currently works for OMD UK as an SEO specialist working on larger client deliverables and research based projects.

Richard Also blogs on his personal Blog –  and SEOMoz.

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